The first words of Netflix’s new series Stranger Things, uttered by the show’s lead character Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), say a lot. “Something is coming,” he says, over a shot of a typical suburban ranch in what we eventually find out is the fictional midwestern town of Hawkins, Indiana. His words are true, but viewers who know what the show is all about quickly realize it’s a nice bit of foreshadowing. Mike isn’t directly talking about the monster, the government coverup of telekinetic MK Ultra babies, or even the supernatural runaway he’ll eventually meet throughout the subsequent eight episodes. Instead, he’s simply talking about the Dungeons & Dragons game he’s playing with his best friends Will, Lucas, and Dustin. But the show’s use of this decidedly nerdy but enduringly iconic role-playing game goes beyond their impending adventure.
This introductory scene is the show’s entire first season in an extremely condensed package. “It is almost here,” Mike, the game’s Dungeon Master warns, causing the perpetual baseball cap-wearing Dustin to freak out: “It’s the Demogorgon! Jesus, we’re so screwed if it’s the Demogorgon!” he yells. Before Mike unleashes the Demogorgon onto the other three unsuspecting players, an argument ensues. Lucas demands that Will should fireball the oncoming creature, which would work only if Will rolled 13 or higher with the game dice. Dustin says it’s too risky, and their best bet is to cast a protection spell.
As Dungeon Master Mike’s Demogorgon creature approaches, Will finally chooses to roll the dice for the fireball, but they’re haphazardly tossed off the table. The game is broken up by Mike’s mom, perplexed that the boys have been playing for 10 hours or more, before the three friends pack it for the night.
Defeated, Will lets slip to Mike that he didn’t make it. “It was a seven,” Will says of his dice-roll coming up short. “The Demogorgon — it got me,” he says to Mike as he pedals away on his BMX bike, only to be attacked by the show’s equivalent of a D&D monster before the opening titles.
The microcosmic scene is, in short, an ingenious use of D&D as a storytelling tool. Its clever, mostly because viewers don’t even need to understand the rules of the fantasy game to figure out what’s going on. It simultaneously introduces the power dynamic of the main characters, but also spells out how they’ll come together in the end to defeat the monster they label as a Demogorgon. They don’t actually know what the creature really is, and it doesn’t even resemble the standard D&D Demogorgon at all, but it’s the only way they know how to make sense of it.
Later, their supernatural runaway pal named El, who is mentally linked to the alternate dimension where Will is trapped, uses the D&D board, the game’s wizard figurine, and the Demogorgon figurine to demonstrate where Will is hiding from the otherworldy creature. She flips the gameboard upside down so its jet black underside faces up, and they justify the unknown place as the “Upside Down.”
When Mike and the crew need it better spelled out for them, they ponder the dangerous netherworld where their friend is trapped by consulting the D&D Expert Rulebook under a chapter chronicling the “Vale of Shadows.” The chapter, explaining that its “a dimension that is a dark reflection or echo of our world,” happens to be spot-on.
Throughout the season they continually use their deep-seated understanding of the game to legitimize and label the supernatural occurrences which happen to them in the show’s reality that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to comprehend. The kids get to ostensibly live out a real-life version of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, leading to the final confrontation with the actual Demogorgon. Fireballs are replaced by Lucas’s slingshot (not to mention El’s destructive mental powers), the creature is defeated, and Will is eventually rescued.
The epilogue of the final episode of the season then features a perfect meta-textual bookend DnD scene with all four friends and a slightly different outcome. “Something is coming,” Mike repeats, “something angry, hungry for your blood. It is almost here.” The friends bicker amongst themselves about what new creature they’ll have to fight in their marathon campaign, but this time it’s a new enemy: the Thessalhydra. Again, Lucas calls for the fireball, and this time Dustin agrees. “Fireball the son of a bitch,” he says. Will rolls a 14, a direct fatal hit.
“That’s not it, is it?” says Dustin, “The campaign was way too short,” says Lucas, possibly referencing the show itself. “It was ten hours!” Mike replies, “But it doesn’t make any sense,” says Dustin. “What about the lost knight?” says one of them, maybe referencing the show’s anti-hero, Chief Hopper. “And the proud princess?” another says, possibly commenting on El. “And those weird flowers in the cave?” Will says, unconsciously talking about the Upside Down. “I don’t know, it’s…” Mike says before being interrupted. It’s a wonderful way to end a multi-faceted story, that’s what.